Saturday, 17 November 2012

Everybody Loves Lists: 28 Years, 28 Games - Part One

The last list I did, which you can read here, was lauded as the finest list known to man and ended all debate on the subject of intro movies. So I am making another foray into the world of listmaking, hoping once more to bring harmony where there is discord.

Today is my birthday. 28 years ago I entered this world, looked around, and did the only sensible thing, which was to burst into tears. Today's list, therefore, is a list of the years I've been alive for, and the most significant game (to me) that was released each year. Part one, below the jump, are the games that had the biggest impression on me for the first 12 years of my life.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Funky Smugglers - Thoughts

Airport security, by all accounts, can be a somewhat dehumanizing experience. You can't take liquids through checkpoints, you have to take your shoes off to show you don't have a stiletto knife stashed between your toes, and if you look like you might be a bit suspicious you're likely to have a prolonged and intimate experience with a rubber glove. But at least we don't have to pass through an X-ray scanner and have our belongings wrenched away from us by an unseen hand.

Funky Smugglers, the new Android and iOS game from 11 Bit Studios, gives you the chance to BE that unseen hand. As passengers pass through the X-ray screen, contraband items they've stashed upon their persons show up in red. Your task is to flick those items away before they board the plane, to ensure that no-one can attempt to hijack a plane with a pair of scissors. As more passengers pass through, the speed at which they move increases, and the difficulty ramps up.

For a while this seems like a perfectly simple and fairly basic game - flick red item until too fast to flick red item any more. But some score-attack games have mechanics that are not intially apparent, which once discovered make the game blossom like a cherry tree. Ikaruga's colour-chaining, Tony Hawk's manuals and reverts, and Joe Danger's wheelies are all fine examples. Funky Smugglers' secret weapon is tossing (fnar fnar). You can only hold onto contraband items for a limited amount of time, as shown by the ring that appears as you touch them and rapidly disappears. By quickly tapping them again, you can toss the items and thereby reset the timer, and thus open up the possiblities for ridiculous multipliers and high scores you could not have dreamed of previously. This feedback loop is absurdly compelling, and ultimately what hooked me - each time I felt I needed to keep tossing those items, bump that multiplier up, just get one more fix of the voiceover saying "ULTIMATE COMBO, BRO!" (This may be the first, and only, time I have enjoyed a videogame referring to me as '"bro")

The game has several other tricks up its sleeve to compel you into playing just one more game. If you're connected to the itnernet you can throw your weight behind team battles - the player base is split into two teams and any points you earn go towards a team total. How the mighty Vaders lost to the Donalds is a mystery I shall take to my grave. At any one time you have 3 additional missions to complete - challenges such as throwing so many items to the top or sides of the screen, or getting X amount of points with tossing - that reward you with coins, which you can spend on a variety of cosmetic upgrades. Most of these, such as new textures for your X-ray scanner, or new items for your passengers, are largely inconsequential, although buying the 2 additional music tracks should be mandatory, as each of the three songs in Funky Smugglers are utterly superb. If you can't be arsed to play for the coins you can purchase them with real money, which sat uneasily with me at first. I'm not a big fan of in-app purchases in paid games, but these are largely unintrusive, bypass the trap of pay-to-win, and frankly the core game was addictive enough that earning the coins through diligent security checks was quite enough.

All in all, Funky Smugglers is one of the finest timewasters I've found on Android, and one of the few score-attack games that has me itching to beat my own scores. The many little hooks that the game lays will get under your skin, and create a compelling experience that is fun for just a quick game or a ridiculously intense, swearing-filled marathon. Airport security never felt so good.

Funky Smugglers is out now for Android and iOS.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Tom Nook

Welcome back to Great Arseholes of Gaming, our regular sideways glance at the videogame characters you'd rather not make full eye contact with. Today, a police transcript delivered to me anonymously reveals corruption and organised crime in the otherwise idyllic surroundings of Animal Crossing, the cute and fluffy town sim from Nintendo.


SB: OK, this is the interview with [REDACTED], interview begins at 1517. Detectives Sonny Bonds and Cole Phelps in attendance. You want a coffee before we start?

X: No.

SB: Alright, [REDACTED], tell us in your own words how you first came to reside in the village of Pimpton.

X: I was living in Nottingham, this would have been around 2002, I think. I sees an advert for something called 'Animal Crossing'. Sez that you could get a house in this little village, meet new people, hang around and explore, that kind of thing. I was a little bored, so I went for it. A change is as good as a rest, you know?


SB: Easy, Phelps.

CP: Sorry.

SB: Please, continue.

X: So I'm start up, and I'm on the train. This cat comes up to me, sez am I movin' out to Pimpton? I sez yeah, she sez you got anywhere to live? I sez no, and she sez she's got a pal, name of Nook, runs the store in Pimpton, he's got a few empty houses there. She calls him on the phone, sets up a meet. When I'm sayin' all this now it seems so goddamned obvious it's a scam. But I was just a kid! Seventeen years old, wet behind the ears, only ever played first-person shooters and beat-em-ups before... How was I to know?

SB: And so Tom Nook met you at the train station?

X: Yeah. Little raccoon looking guy, furry nose. And he's wearin' an apron and nothin' else. Middle of town, middle of the day, and he's half-naked, and he knows it, and he don't care. I should have known right there was something fishy about this guy.

SB: How was that first meeting with Tom Nook?

X: Oh, it was great. Too great. He's laughing, he's friendly, he's generous. Says I can have the house no problem. Takes me to see it. And it looks beautiful from the outside, real Norman fuckin' Rockwell, know what I mean? Then he stings me. Sez the place is gonna cost me 19900 bells, and I only got 1000.

CP: Bells?

SB: The local currency.

X: So he sez "Tell you what. You can come work in my store and pay off the debt." I'm broke, and I need a roof over my head, so I agree to it. He gives me the keys to the house and tells me to meet him at his store. And I get inside the house, and its like a fuckin' prison cell. Dingy, stone walls, all that shit. So now I'm basically in Nook's pocket.

SB: What was the nature of your work for Nook?

X: First time I get there he gets me to plant some flowers and shit. That's fine, but then he tells me he's going to 'hold' my wages to make up the debt! No walkin' around money, no percentages, nothing. Then he tells me to go meet everyone in town. So I go around, and that's when it starts to fall into place. Nook OWNS this goddamned town. Owns everything and everyone in it. All of them, gibberin' on about how great he is, how generous he is. All of them with this scared look in their eye like they don't dare cross him. I meet the mayor...

SB: That would be Mayor Tortimer, the tortoise?

X: Yeah, that's him, corrupt old bastard. He's in Nook's pocket too! That raccoon bastard sent me on a tour of the town so's I could see that it was all his, so's I'd understand I was his too. Freaked me out. But now I'm in deep with him too... What was I supposed to do?

CP: What did you do?

X: What could I do? I kept my mouth shut. I worked. I watched Nook growin' fat offa my labours. I'm workin', and livin' in a dank dive, and he's keepin' my wages and livin' large. He even gives his store a makeover! Can you believe that? The lowlife! Spendin' money that was rightfully mine on a new goddamned storefront for his lair!

SB: Did he ever threaten you?

X: Well, not...[PAUSE] One time... One time it got too much, out busting my ads in the woods, pickin' flowers... I was so mad, I just turned off the console, didn't save like Nook always told me to. When I turned it back on... there was this mole...

SB: Mole?

X: He said his name was Mr Resetti. It was obvious Nook had sent him. He... he scared me. He threatened me, told me I HAD to save, if I knew what was good for me... Jesus, I'm gettin' antsy just thinkin' about him.

CP: I gotta be honest with you, [REDACTED], I'm not sure any of this would be enough for a conviction...

X: No, now hold on, it gets crazier. I'm back in Nottingham, and I see a friend of mine. He's got 'Animal Crossing' too, says I should come visit his town, Woodtown, sometime. So I takes my memory card to him and I pays his town a visit. And he tells me that when he was first on the train, some cat had come up to him and put him in touch with Nook too!

SB: The same cat you met on the train to Pimpton?

X: The same goddamned cat! Same "hey, here's a house, now you're in debt" deal! So I gets to his town, and it looks the same as mine, different villagers but similar. And there, in the middle of town, is TOM FUCKIN' NOOK HIMSELF. Another town, another big-ass store. Don't you see? He's runnin' a slave trade! Pickin' up kids offa trains who don't know no better and workin' em half to death to line his own pockets! He's runnin' this scam EVERYWHERE! He's a monster! He's worse than Al Capone!

CP: Why didn't you go to the police in Pimpton? Isn't there a police station there? Run Officer Copper?

X: Ain't you been listenin' to a word I've said? NOOK OWNS PIMPTON. Copper is just as much into Nook as every other poor schmuck in that town. No way am I goin' to him! My life wouldn't be worth two bells! You guys gotta help me!

SB: I need to speak to my partner for a moment, [REDACTED]. Let's take a short break. Interview suspended at 1543.




X: Hey... Hey, wheres the guys I was speakin' to before?

?: They're indisposed. I'm here to talk to you about your debt. Mr Nook does not look kindly on those who reject his generosity. Now let's just...


Top image by pickassoreborn

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Curiosity - Thoughts

Peter Molyneux, the mad prophet of videogames, has released something unexpected, bold and daring - an HD remake of MS Paint.

For those who don't know of Peter, he was the driving force behind Bullfrog, the dev giants that were responsible for some of the finest games of the 90's (Theme Park, Theme Hospital, Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate). After Bullfrog were acquired and slowly digested by EA, Molyneux founded Lionhead, who were responsible for the almost-masterpiece Black and White before being swallowed by Microsoft and concentrating on the Fable series, two of which were great, finished games.

Now Molyneux is free, working with tiny studio 22 Cans to pursue his two great passions - making thought-provoking games, and making absurd, outlandish, overreaching promises about those games that can never possibly hope to be achieved. The big pitch about this one - clumsily entitled 'Curiosity: What's Inside The Cube' - is that one person will find something "life-changing" inside the cube. Unfortunately, I am writing about this long after all the good jokes about what may be inside the cube have been taken (a quantum cat, Gwyneth Paltrow's head, the Lament Configuration, etc). In future I shall endeavor to be faster, or at least better.

Before this enigmatic ultimate prize, however, comes the game itself. Each layer of the main cube (hereafter called the Hypercube in honour of a film that barely anyone has seen) is made up of billions of cubelets. Players tap on these and they disappear in a tinkle of chimes and pixels. If you are the lucky person to take out the final cubelet on the final layer of Hypercube, you win (something)! I downloaded it and booted it up. From my time with the game so far, I would hazard a guess that what is inside the cube is a fucking error message.

I know 22 Cans are but a tiny studio, and they have a mammoth task managing such a massive undertaking as maintaining a persistant online hypercube totally live, but it was (and at the time of writing, still is) frustrating not to be able to access this thing due to slow servers. You would think that Molyneux would have had some idea of the limits of the 22 Cans server infrastructure and limited his ambitions somewhat (although if you know anything about Molyneux you know that limiting his ambition is not in his programming).

When you do finally get into the cube, you zoom into one facet of the Hypercube and start tapping those cubelets. You tap and tap and tap and tap. You tap more than Fred Astaire installing a row of kitchen sinks. There are chaining mechanics that reward you for sustained tapping. You can log into facebook and howl your tapping prowess at your friends. You can compare your tapping with their tapping. You can buy upgrades to really take your tapping to the next level. Other than that?

Not a lot. It's possible to tap well enough to sculpt an image into the cube. As with any creative endeavor, penises are a popular choice. I have limited art skills, but I would have been remiss, dear reader, if I did not at least try. I would have been failing the possibilities that Curiosity provides, I would have been failing the spirit of citizen journalism, I would have been failing both you and I.

But that's all down to tapping. You might be able to create a nice recreation of a Bosch triptych, but it will take a shitload of tapping. There isn't enough here, despite the chaining mechanics and grand promises and whispered threats of more to come, to justify what boils down to a tapping-based Skinner Box with dodgy connectivity.

I was online when the first layer of Cubelets was annihilated, when the second layer was tantalizing close. "Less than half a percent to go!" I tapped a few cubes. And a few more. Then a bright white light, and a noise. Then a connection error. When I got back in, there was the cube. Get tapping, it seemed to say.

I tapped on my 'home' button.

Curiosity: What's Inside The Cube is out now on Android and iOS, and is free.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Everybody Loves Lists: The 5 Best Intro Movies of ALL TIME

Lists! They are the bread and butter of videogaming websites - easy to put together, full of exciting controversy, and guaranteed linkbait. And so I am leaping into the fray, with a short list of some of my favourite intro videos in gaming. This list will doubtless cement my reputation as a titan of games blogging, and will be hailed and revered as The Definitive List. All other opinions will henceforth be rendered null and void

Please note, the intros in this list are all non-interactive. Anything that involves any form of player interaction (the bathysphere descent in Bioshock, for example) has been disqualified, and placed in a holding cell for use in future lists.

Final Fight (Arcade, 1989)

Not too long ago, we here in the larger metropolises (metropoli?) of the UK got to vote on whether we wanted elected mayors to run our cities. Most cities said no, on the grounds that one bloody Boris Johnson is quite enough, thanks. If there had been any evidence that the mayors we'd receive would be anything like Mike Haggar, though, there'd have been landslides all over this sceptred isle. As mayor of Metro City, former street fighter Haggar promised to smash crime and then super-suplex it too. Crime, naturally, was unhappy about this, and took action to protect itself. The intro to Capcom's side-scrolling beat-em-up is a fine, economical depiction of the catalyst to lots of men being punched a lot. Bonus points for the absurdly brief appearance of Cody and Guy (playable characters, although you only picked one of them if the other player had already taken Haggar) and the abrupt ending, which all but screams "PUT SOME MONEY IN AND STEP UP, KID!"

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2003)

The art style of Wind Waker horrified many when it was revealed. Nintendo had previously shown footage at E3 of a realistic looking high-resolution Link, and the vibrant cel-shading of Wind Waker was nothing like that. "It looks like a kid's cartoon!" cried people without the self-awareness to realise they were talking about a videogame about an elf-boy with a magic sword. Wind Waker is still a visual treat, lush and inviting, even if the fishing for treasure shards got old very fast. The intro is a rundown of the 'legend' of the Hero of Time, shown as a tapestry with a gorgeous, mournful flute and harpsichord accompaniment. For newcomers, its a nice way to ease yourself into the legend of the Legend of Zelda. And for the old timers, it's a chance for your heart to soar as a triumphant fiddle picks up the second most iconic piece of music ever to come out of Nintendo.

Deus Ex (PC, 2000)

I could bang on about Deus Ex for an eternity (and I will, don't you worry). When it came out in 2000 it was the herald of the future of gaming, and it is a sad and scathing indictment of the artform that twelve years later it still is. It's only recently that the potential that Deus Ex showed us is being built on, with games like Dishonored standing on the giant shoulders of Ion Storm's dystopian cyberpunk conspiracy masterpiece. The intro is so good because it establishes the murky tone that runs through the game, and lays out much of the story without clueing you in to what that story is. It's just two men talking, and the occasional look at the wider world. But there is a wealth of detail laid out by the conversation between Bob Page and (future Great Arsehole of Gaming) Walton Simons, pieces of the puzzle laid out many hours before they'll fall into place. This is one of the rare intros that actually gets better on the second playthrough, when the full extent of their grand plan can be savoured. And if you are still yet to experience your first playthrough of this game, what the hell are you still doing here? GET ON IT NOW.

Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube, 2002)

There's nothing clever about this one. It's just a load of characters posing before they have a big old fight. Nintendo's oddball beat-em-up, in which a load of iconic Nintendo characters... erm... have a big old fight, is tons of barmy fun, and the intro fully reflects that. Each character is given their moment in the spotlight, before moving on to the next at breakneck speed. And they look great too - the image of Sheikh looking up at the sky mirrored by a starlit Zelda, the herd of multicoloured stampeding Yoshis (Yoshii?), Captain Falcon ramming his rivals off the road. They're all shown in their natural habitat, doing what they do best before facing off against each other. In fact, I have only one problem with this intro - it doesn't make it clear enough that FOX IS A CHEAT CHARACTER FOR CHEATING BASTARDS. KIRBY 4 LIFE!!!!!!!1!

Sam and Max Hit The Road (PC, 1993)

Sam and Max marked the first fully-voiced Lucasarts point-and-click adventure, and the intro shows that off beautifully, as well as the contrasting personalities of the freelance police. The laconic Sam and maniacal Max crash through a wall to save a woman being held hostage by a mad scientist. Except they aren't there to save her - they're there because they went the wrong way, and only stay so that Max can indulge himself in ultraviolence. The intro and credits contain everything that made Sam and Max so beloved: quickfire screwball dialogue, a dash of metahumour and copious amounts of violence meted out by a psychotic rabbit.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Wario

Welcome back to Great Arseholes of Gaming, where we pay homage to the greatest douchebags to inhabit virtual space. Today, we discuss the nightmarish mirror image of one of gaming's most beloved icons - and Wario.

You know him just by his silhouette. His jaunty hat. His bushy and magisterial moustache. His goofy, incompetent brother. His laugh, my God, his laugh. He's a titan of modern gaming with a love of coins and a firm grasp of any role he turns his begloved hand to.

But every thesis has its antithesis. Every jolly yin needs a hateful yang. And cometh the hour, cometh the man - a twisted, venal parody of the familiar. The cartoony smile contorted into a vulpine grin. The love of coins magnified to an all-consuming greed. His laugh. My God, HIS LAUGH.

Yes, I am of course referring to Wario and his nightmarish doppelganger - Bobby Kotick.

Wario has appeared in a ton of Nintendo games, starting with Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins in 1992 for the mighty Gameboy. He's occasionally starred in his own games, such as the excellent Wario World for the GameCube, which was developed by the godlike geniuses at Treasure Video Games. For the most part, he's become a staple of party games, appearing in all Mario Kart games since the N64 edition. On the GameCube edition, Mario Kart: Double Dash, I used to deliberately finish in 4th place or worse just so I could hear his enraged wail of "I lost... to a bunch of losers!" (this is definitely why I used to regularly lose, there is NO OTHER REASON) But my favourite Wario titles, the ones that best capture his anarchic spirit, the ones that brought my friends and I hours of laughter, the ones that are the most damned fun, are all his: Warioware.

The Warioware series is one of the finest party game franchises I have ever experienced (the Wii version, Smooth Moves, was excellent, as was Touched! for the DS, but there is a special place in my heart for the GameCube masterpiece Warioware Inc.). It throws 5 second microgames at you, no explanation or context save for a single verb, and delirious button-bashing ensues. It has its roots in Bishi-Bashi Special, a slice of pure mentalism for the PS1, but pared down to the purest form of chaos and therefore much more approachable. The Warioware microgames are games that anyone can play, and fail at, and laugh at. There are other microgame collections that have tried to bottle Wario's anarchic lightning, but only the deranged McPixel comes close.

The story of Warioware is utterly irrelevant to the game itself, and is much more a framing device for the cavalcade of microgames that are being thrown at your eyes and brain. Wario, always looking out to make a fast coin, has set up a videogame development studio. He is dismayed, however, to discover that making games is hard. To that end, he throws all the half-finished ideas and fragments of games he can scrape together into one Frankengame - Warioware. As the series progressed, Wario did the same thing over and over again, raking in coin after coin for iterations of the same thing. This symbolises everything about Wario's personality: his laziness, his greed, his contempt for anyone who is not Wario.

Bobby Kotick, like any good parody, is an exaggerated version of Wario and his backstory. There are some minor differences - Wario began a development studio, whilst Kotick is CEO of a publisher, the fictional 'Activision'. This subtle difference is a crucial one - it allows the Kotick character license to spread his greed across multiple studios and franchises. Whereas Wario was happy to slap together games from entertaining microgames, Kotick's laziness and greed means that the games he has a hand in don't even need to be entertaining, such as the recent '007: Legends' (just imagine if such a threadbare hotchpotch of a game were actually released!). Wario's happiness to iterate the same game over and over is taken to its logical conclusion in Kotick, who's insane 'annualisation' policy means he is happy to release the same game over and over again, albeit with slightly different graphics, in order to satiate his all-consuming lust for coins.

Ultimately, as a character, Kotick is nowhere near as iconic as the mustachioed maniac he is based on. Whilst, as stated above, a good parody is all about exaggeration, Kotick's greed and contempt for gamers are stretched to such absurd extremes that he is revealed as a pure cartoon character, too obviously an invention with nowhere near the depth of a well-rounded human like Wario. It's a shame that this is the case - if he were more believable, an appearance by Kotick might raise a smile, rather than a sigh.